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French film in Australia, plenty to chew, mon vieux (old chap)






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Festival dates:

Sydney: March 2 -21

Melbourne: March 4 – 21

Canberra: March 18 – 31

Brisbane: March 17 – 31

Perth: March 17 – 31

Adelaide: March 18 -31



French have a reputation and a tradition unmatched in globally successful
cinema, except perhaps by Hollywood, and the 21st Alliance Française
French Film Festival gives Australians a chance to savour a selection of recent
movies – more than ever before, with almost 40 features in the tasty program (supported,
appropriately enough for a nation of food lovers, by Tefal the cookware giant).
Andrew L. Urban samples the menu.



From bitter sweet and melancholy to drama
and hilarity, the program is as diverse as you’d expect, with several gems in
the mix – not least Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs, the opening night film
starring the funny Dany Boon and several other French acting luminaries, about
a man with a bullet lodged dangerously in his brain. A serious enough subject,
but Jeunet uses it as a vehicle for his unique style of comedy. If you’ve seen
Delicatessen or Amélie, you’ll know what a good time he offers.


Dany Boon also pops up in Le Code a changé
(Change of Plans) in which a carefully planned dinner party turns into chaos
and conflict. Lies, truth and the consequences are the themes of this lively
relationship drama and the screenplay
orchestrates the dinner to ensure we not only meet all the guests but get a
snapshot into their agendas and relationships. The film is another collaboration
between mother and son filmmaking team
Danièle Thompson and her son
Christopher Thompson; they are best known for Orchestra Seats and the grown up
romantic comedy, Jet Lag.


comedies include the escapist fun of OSS
117: Rio ne respond plus (OSS 117: Lost in Rio)
from the director with the intriguing name of
Hazanavicius. The film centres on the spy whose code name is OSS 117 (one seventeen, please, not double one 7). Imagine if you
can a spoofy James Bond-alike in whom the charm has turned to smug, with
Maxwell Smart’s bumbling, who regards women as capable of only sex and
motherhood, and who naively insult all races of people he meets. Dujardin is
marvellously deadpan throughout, a great spoof on the cold war spy with a trick
for every situation and a clumsy mouth.


One of my favourites in the program is the
quietly moving, deeply touching drama, Le Hérisson (The Hedgehog), starring
Josiane Balasko and the young Garance Le Guillermic. Based on a popular novel,
the film is about the relationship between the 11 year old and the middle aged supervisor
of the apartment block who lives downstairs from her, a haunting performance by
Balasko. It’s a sophisticated story in the best sense of the word: complex and
layered, observant and warmly humane. But it is edged with melancholy and
infused with drama.


The Hedgehog is slotted in the First
Feature section; other sections are Blood is Thicker Than Water, Comedy, Love
at First Sight and Resistance. Ther  are
also two children’s films in the program, The True Story of Puss’n Boots
(animation) and Trouble at Timpeltill.


Another outstanding film (if rather sad) slotted
in the Resistance section of the festival is Welcome, in which Simon (Vincent
Lindon) a swimming instructor in Calais, meets, befriends and helps 17 year old
Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) a Kurdish refugee from Iraq who is desperate to join his
girlfriend in London. The script is
sensitive and sharp, dealing in the intractable grey of the moral dilemmas that
arise through the globally repeated issue of displaced people and their
treatment by host countries, Western societies which are being tested by the
crisis. But it’s on the individual human level that Philippe Lioret’s film
takes us through some of the recognisable and tangible issues. And the
performances are memorable.


A very different take on an outsider’s
journey, Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophet (A Prophet) gives us a powerful insight
into the brutal facts of prison life from the point of view of the almost
illiterate, 19 year old part Arab part Corsican Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim),
sentenced to six years jail. He is quickly recruited by Cesar (Niels Arestrup),
leader of the Corsican gang and ruling jail supremo. His first mission for
Cesar is to kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Thus the young Malik begins his jail
education which he enhances with genuine education, learning to read and write.
He also observes the various illegal activities being run by Cesar and others,
and secretly makes his own plans.


Rahim is excellent as the young crim, Malik, a mixed bag of youthful bravado
and naïve vulnerability who is quick to adapt to his circumstances – and profit
from them and Niels Arestrup gives a knockout performance as the Corsican jail


In the
war-setting of 1941, L'Armée du crime (The Army of Crime) tells a powerful  story about the French resistance – but with
a difference. Teaming some of his regulars (Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre
Darrousin) with a well chosen cast from a range of ethnic backgrounds, director
Robert Guédiguian gets strong performances – not least from Simon Abkarian as
the Armenian poet whose ethics do not support killing under any circumstances.
Ironically enough, he gets to lead the resistance group formed to bring
together the angry young partisans who have been acting recklessly.


In some respects, it’s a routine ‘French
resistance fighters’ movie – with one big difference: the fighters are a mix of
Spanish, Italian, Armenian, Polish, Hungarian (as well as a few French)
activists who take it upon themselves to kick Nazi butt. But the film’s primary
editorial target is the French who collaborated with the Nazis.


Stéphane Brizé’s delicate adaptation of the
book makes for “An exquisitely beautiful film about longing,” says Louise
Keller in her review to be published coinciding with the film’s commercial
release. “Mademoiselle Chambon uses cinematic language and music to paint an
affecting canvass. Vincent Lindon’s
Jean faces a conundrum. As a builder, he recognises the importance of a solid
foundation which he enjoys at home with his wife and son in their provincial
home. But there’s a sense of loneliness around him, aroused by the film’s
catalyst, Sandrine Kiberlain’s Mademoiselle Chambon, the replacement teacher
whose life is adrift.”


The second film in as many years about the
woman who established the world famous fashion house, Coco Chanel & Igor
Stravinsky is set in Paris
in 1913, with Anna Mouglalis playing Coco and
Mads Mikkelsen playing Stravinsky. It’s interesting, if a tad flawed, and both
leads are excellent.


Another biography, Sister Smile, from
director Stijn Coninx, is a fascinating and little known story of the young
Belgian nun whose self penned song, Dominique is better known than she is.  Cecil De
France is extraordinary (and almost unrecognisable) as Jeannine, says Louise, “who
becomes known as Soeur Sourire (or Sister Smile), when a documentary to promote
the convent leads to an audition and then a recording contract, the
(considerable) royalties going to the Church. Although her identity is kept a
secret (the photo only shows the back of the nun’s habit), the phenomenal
success of the record Dominique (selling 500,000 units) changes everything.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the final 45 minutes, which
deals with Jeannine’s emotional and sexual vulnerabilities.”


the ebb and flow of a middle class French family,
Bezançon’s Le premier jour du reste de ta vie (The First Day of the Rest of
Your Life) is a patchy affair, much like life itself, I suppose, with its ups
and downs, its highs and its lows. Although there is nothing arresting in the
story and most of it seems remarkably familiar to us with grown up children,
the film engages with its veracity and its sensitive portrayal of the clashes
and resolutions that many families must endure. A real crowd pleaser in France, it
features wonderful performances from an ensemble cast.


The Closing Night Film, Gainsbourg: Je
t'aime... moi non plus (Gainsbourg) is described as “graphic novelist Joann
Sfar's audacious directorial debut, an amusing and fantastical biopic of the
debonair Serge Gainsbourg. This surreal and evocative record of Monsieur
Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) - iconic singer, poet, writer, actor and general
provocateur - traces his youth growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris, through to his
transformation into the hard-living showman, enfant terrible and successful
songwriter during three decades.”


It’s probably a good choice to close a film
fest with a movie everyone will keep talking about ….


Andrew Urban

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